The Sunday Times (London)
July 04, 2004

Left reeling by Castro’s coastline

Cuba’s marine parks are a pristine underwater garden — and it’s all thanks to Uncle Sam, says Isabella Tree

Everything is beginning to look like a fish — every patch of weed, every rock, every shimmer of water. It is high noon and we have been wading around the mangroves, in the turtle-grass flats, for well over four hours. Ahead of me, Koki, arguably the best fishing guide this side of the Antilles, is stalking through the shallows like a heron. He beckons me with an impatient flicking of his wrist, wincing visibly as I splash up to him, as surreptitiously as an elephant at bath time. “Bonefish,” he hisses, pointing. “Ten o’clock.” Poor guy. I feel he is minutes away from throwing in the towel and taking up a desk job. Though this is Cuba, and that probably is not an option. I have had five bonefish on the line this morning and lost them all. I’m feeling tired and emotional and quite close to tears. I’ve even hooked a couple of barracuda that came whistling in from nowhere and took my fly inches from a bonefish’s nose, then snapped the line.

But it is bonefish we’re after — Albula vulpes, literally “white fox” — perhaps the most sought-after sporting fish in the world. It is a consummate challenge, even for veterans of the sport — I say in my defence — which is why bonefishing can be so frustrating, and so addictive. Trophy-hunting is not the issue, as every fish is released, and we’re not talking a Hemingway battle of the deep (bonefish here weigh only about 6lb, and live in shallow water); this is all about skill and lightness of touch. It is the diff- erence between being a white hunter and a Kalahari Bushman.

For the bonefish, or macabi, as it is known in Cuba, is one of the most difficult fish in the world to catch. It has a mouth made of plates, like a garbage-crusher, which it uses to grind up molluscs and crustaceans. If you strike too soon, the hook simply pings back out at you; if you reel in when the fish is fighting, its granular teeth sever the line. Once it is hooked, the bonefish has to be played with a taxing combination of patience, strength and sensi- tivity. But getting it to take the fly is a feat in itself. The bonefish is wary and very, very fast. Everything preys on it, including sharks and barracudas. The slightest movement will spook it. Cast too close and an entire school will evaporate in a tiny puff of sand.

“Nine o’clock now, look, look,” Koki is saying, with the urgency of a man down to his last glimmer of hope. “They coming closer. Cast, cast, 10 metres.” I can see them now, gently finning, a dozen shadows slowly shimmying towards us over the sand — upwind. I’d have as much chance of catching them, I reckon, if I just chucked my rod and all the tackle after them into the water. Above us, some frigates are catching thermals. An osprey is perched high in a pine tree, watching me, disdain written all over him. The mangroves are an auditorium of egrets and pelicans. We are all here doing the same thing, only some are clearly better at it than others.

FIVE DAYS ago, the Jardines de la Reina seemed a very different place. The “Gardens of the Queen”, so named by Christopher Columbus, is now the last uninhabited archipelago in the Atlantic, possibly — of its size — in the world. To me, fooled by the thrilling but also faintly uneasy knowledge of being light years from human habitation, a shop, a flushing loo, a car, it seemed utterly deserted. In these 250 islands, in 1,000 square miles, there are probably less than 100 people: most of them lobster fishermen from the coast of mainland Cuba, a long day’s chug away, the rest a handful of foreigners like us, with our delightful, and consummately tolerant, Cuban diving-and-fishing guides. I wondered what Columbus had been thinking. There seemed nothing garden-like about the Jardines at all. There was nothing here but mangroves and sea grapes, and the odd Caribbean pine; the only land mammal was an indigenous coypu-like tree rat called jutia, which scuttled about through the underbrush like something from Life of Pi.

Five short days and some spectacular dives off the reefs have thrown these first impressions to the winds. We have finned through coral canyons lined with waving lobsters and moray eels, parted hanging curtains of yellowtail and giant banks of silvery tarpons, glided balletically with rays and hawksbill turtles, made friends with potato cod seven feet long. Yesterday, in a final surrender of all preconceptions, we were playing with a school of silky sharks. I even managed to kiss one. It has become obvious that this is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, a rare, pristine marine wilderness; and that the gardens Columbus was so adroitly referring to lie, of course, beneath the sea, not above it.

The Jardines de la Reina form one of Cuba’s 20 marine reserves. Cuba has an extraordinary conservation record, not entirely, it must be said, of its own volition. The US embargo has effectively denied Cuba the chance to join the industrial “green” revolution or to parti-cipate in the economic globalisation that has taken its toll on environments elsewhere in the world. And, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its economic support for Cuba in the 1990s, the beleaguered Caribbean island has had to become self-sufficient, relying entirely on its own limited resources, em- bracing organic and low-energy agriculture because it can afford to do little else, and scrapping its fishing fleet because it cannot afford to maintain it.

That said, though, conser- vation in Cuba is a matter of national pride; it is institutionalised. The Cubans are leaders in biological research, with thousands of graduates from Cuba’s 10 universities and institutes devoted to work in ecology. In the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was one of the few countries in the world with a negative deforestation rate. Now, more than 15% of the country’s area is designated as some form of national wildlife, biosphere or forest reserve.

But it is the waters around Cuba that are the country’s real treasure. The diverse habitats of Cuba’s coastline, and its mangrove archipelagos, make it one of the most productive regions in all the Caribbean, a breeding ground for 750 species of fish and 3,000 other marine organisms. Foremost among the champions of Cuba’s extra- ordinary underwater world is none other than Fidel, the Beard, himself. In his younger days, Castro was such a fanatical scuba-diver, it was almost his downfall. Among other madcap schemes designed to overthrow the wily revolutionary, the CIA invented an exploding clam, which, it was hoped, would blow him up at one of his favourite dive sites. They even doctored a wetsuit with fungus spores and contaminated his regulator with tuberculosis bacilli. But, like the famous exploding cigars, hallucinogenic milkshakes and powder that was supposed to make Fidel’s beard fall out, these aquatic assassination attempts failed to make their mark.

Now in his 45th year as dictator, Castro has signed more than 20 international conser- vation treaties, and he recently revealed plans to designate a staggering 25% of Cuban land and surrounding waters as marine reserves over the next 5-7 years. Doubtless this is in order to encourage the tourist dollar, which is proving such a lifeline to Cuba in the straitened circumstances of President Bush’s tightening of the blockade; but Cuba is also well placed to become a leader in conservation, and is winning itself important allies in the rest of the world for this reason.

It seems ironic that this last bastion of communism on the doorstep of America should be providing such a shining example of low-impact ecotourism. But then Cuba is full of ironies, and even out here, in this remote archipelago, they hit you with full force. The Florida Keys, for example, once looked just like this; now they are so heavily developed, they can never hope to recover their original ecosystem. Yet the depleted marine stocks of the Keys and all the coastal lagoons of the southeastern United States are endlessly replenished by fish and other organisms carried there on the currents from Cuba.

Yet, again, the same currents also carry desperate refugees on their rafts and inner tubes away from Castro’s regime. We are all aware, though nobody mentions it, that Koki and the rest of the crew are carefully vetted and observed to be sure that none of them will suddenly turn the engine full throttle and head for Miami.

MIRACULOUSLY, my fly lands a few feet in front of the lead bonefish’s nose; more miraculously, he turns to pursue it. “Strip, strip,” urges Koki. “Not so fast, not so fast.” I draw in the line with my free hand in little tempting jerks, to imitate a swimming crab, and my heart is in my mouth as I watch the bonefish closing in. Suddenly, it has taken my fly and gone like a torpedo, and my reel is screaming and so is Koki: “Let it run, let it run! ” He’s jumping around, lifting the line over the mangrove bushes, shouting “Reel in, reel in”, then “Let it go, let it go”, and my arm is beginning to ache, and for a moment I think I’ll never manage to land it, I’ll die of a heart attack instead. But somehow, a lifetime later, the fish is in my hands, though I can hardly see it for tears of excitement and relief and emotion and the adrenaline pumping through my system. And Koki is taking out the hook and showing me how to hold the bonefish gently in the water to revive it and then, at last, to let it go. And for a fleeting moment we are bound together, capitalista and comunista, gazing across the shallow sand flats, at one with the jinking flutter of our bonefish returning to freedom.

Isabella Tree travelled as a guest of Air France

Travel Brief

The only practical way to visit the Jardines de la Reina is through a specialist operator. Roxton Bailey Robinson Worldwide (01488 689701,, the exclusive UK agent for fishing on the islands, has a week aboard La Tortuga (a two-storey oil rig converted into a houseboat) from £3,235pp, including two nights in Havana, Air France flights from Heathrow via Paris, domestic flights and transfers. It also has a week aboard the Halcon (a six- to eight-berth luxury vessel) from £3,766pp, based on six sharing. Regional departures are available at no extra cost.